Donna Jo Napoli’s Zel is an excellent reminder of the power of an old-fashioned fairy tale, and reveals many of the problems of the emotional maturity of the young people inside of the old fairytales. Rapunzel is no mysterious or obscure text. She lets down her hair, and the witch that would keep her there forever, a girl in a tower alone but for a mother’s affection, is discovered by a young prince, and rescued there in some fashion or another. Perhaps the witch is killed, perhaps not. There are as many versions of the myth as there are storytellers, and the joy of fairytales is the power of the author bursting through the seams of the familiar story. Knowing the plot, in fact, makes the rest of the work a showcase for the other authorial talents like imagery, characterization, setting, the musicality of language. In all of these aspects, Donna Jo Napoli’s interpretation is a wild success, with beautiful language, a rich and engaging setting. She sets her tale in Southern Germany during the protestant reformation. The scenery is lush and rich and full of trees. Her witch has power over plants, and every page is full of some twisting vine or tree, and the alms and alpine forests are the kind of place where the reader truly would long to visit. In fact, the rural alps are some of the most beautiful places in the world, and it is a treasure to walk through that landscape again with the interesting figure of the Witch.
Ultimately, when the hero and heroine behave exactly as is expected of them in their fabled circumstances, they become less interesting. It isn’t perfection, per se, but the sense that they are not in charge of their own actions. They are both, to some extent, fed their lives by others and forces beyond their control, whether by parents who dictate futures, or the indifferent stars that are suggested to influence the lives of men and fate. No, these are very well-written dolls, who seem to exist for young readers to inhabit in the text. The best character in the book, and the one that will speak to a more mature and interesting view of human morality and fate is the one character who would transgress everything and make a deal with devils for the sake of breaking off from her fate. She is at once a perfect mother, a terrible mother, and a tragic mother, like the goose without a mate, nesting on stones.Her story is ultimately the one where a character changes based on her own impulses and motivations, contrary to the fates around her. Her story is the one that is most interesting, and lingers in the mind long after the hair is chopped off, the tower falls down, and the beautiful maiden is telling a fable for the granddaughter on her knee. The mother, with her control over plants, does make her nest on stones, out in the mountain alms, and in the abandoned tower, and in the far, distant places of the world.
It is a light book on a hot, summer day, but it is a lovely book, beautifully written. The joy of the familiar fairy tale mitigating the mechanical plotting is in the expression of all the rest of the book, which is full of beautiful language, stunning sceneries and vistas, and a figure at the center who steals a daughter from the world, gaining her true self and her own destruction. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the old stories.
Note: It used to be a common thing to do to a girl, to lock her away from the world like a prisoner to protect her innocence. The anchorites were matched only by the kept mothers and daughters of rich men and lords and kings. Rapunzel, Laustic, Julian, all of them kept in the bound walls, peering from windows at a beautiful, distant world. Let it not be forgotten, this injustice, and let the story be told forever. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your beautiful hair, your symbol of beauty, be both what imprisons you and what ultimately liberates you. May he never lock you away in the big house, where the only thing to do is to sit in the garden and be safe.